To all wondering how the United States could stumble so badly in Afghanistan, information is emerging that should help leaders understand how better to conduct a war.

Don’t outsource the job, for one thing.

Of the $14 trillion spent by the Pentagon since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States, up to half went to for-profit defense contractors, according to a study by Brown University’s Costs of War project and the Center for International Policy.



Released Monday, the study laid out Pentagon dependence on private companies. Authors persuasively argued such moves helped undermine the nation’s war effort. The Defense Department used private contractors to run fuel convoys and feed the troops, but also to train and equip Afghan security forces, according to an Associated Press article on the study.

These are the same forces that gave up largely without a fight as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan last month, a stunning collapse given the 20-year-investment in training. By contrast, Afghans trained by U.S. special forces — not private contractors — did the bulk of the fighting against the Taliban last month.

Now, study authors say the U.S. needs to examine the role these contractors played. That means looking at everything from Defense Department insistence on the use of Blackhawk helicopters — more complex than Russian equipment and difficult to maintain — to contractors allegedly paying protection dollars to both the Taliban and warlords.

The waste of dollars was bad enough, but the study makes the point that dependence on private contractors undermined the mission.

Look at what happened in the last months of the war. When the withdrawal began earlier this year, contractors outnumbered U.S. troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As they left, taking their knowledge with them, Afghan security forces lost the ability to keep helicopters in the air to battle the Taliban.

The U.S. didn’t always fight wars this way. A greater reliance on the private sector began in the run-up to war after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Then-Vice President Dick Cheney and others argued that using private contractors would result in a trimmer, leaner and more cost-efficient U.S. military. Cheney, of course, was a former CEO of Halliburton, the company that received more than $30 billion by 2008 to establish bases, run them and feed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to study figures.

Using contractors had another effect. It hid the enormous human cost of war. Some 7,000 military members died in all post-9/11 conflicts, but thousands of contractors — estimates from 4,000 to 8,000, depending on the source — were also killed. Aside from families, though, who knew about the deaths of private citizens?

And that’s the trouble with a war waged by mercenaries.

The nation can forget a war is going on. Other people are bearing the burden of sacrifice. People go about their lives. Congress fights among itself, failing in its duty to oversee foreign excursions. That most serious business of a nation, waging war, becomes an afterthought.

Twenty years later, a president finally determined to pull back. Only then was it clear that the years of war had led not to success, but to ignominious failure — one almost predestined, given early decisions to privatize much of the effort. Providing for the common defense, it seems, cannot be outsourced.

(2) comments

Khal Spencer

This opinion piece skims the surface as to why hiring private contractors rather than recruiting or drafting troops is a bad idea. The biggest is that these contract employees take the same risks our troops do but are not subject to military benefits that their colleagues in the armed forces enjoy. That's why its war on the cheap. Makes it look like our commitment of boots on the ground is smaller, and Uncle Sam shirks his responsibility to those who are doing the hard and dangerous work in war zones. Get blown up or burned alive and hung on a bridge? Talk to Halliburton or one of the other military-industrial cannon fodder providers.

I would love to see a draft re-established. Back in the Vietnam War days, all young men had a draft card and therefore, had skin in the game. Well, unless you were a "Fortunate Son". Young people voted and showed up at rallies because back then, we all had to worry about being the first home on your block to have your boy come home in a box. Nowadays, fighting and dying is someone else's problem. That's not how an army in a democracy is supposed to work, as the Founders made clear.

As far as tactics, I suspect the military determines the tactics even if the contractors do the training and bribing. What I read recently is that we trained the Afghan army to fight the way we fight--provided with close air support, helicopters, and rapid deployments via air power. Once we pulled the plug on air power, those outposts were on their own and were lacking food, supplies, and backup due to loss of that air power as well as rampant corruption in the Afghan government. It was a set of tactics almost designed for failure.

William Mee

Agreeded. I agree with the draft for 18 year olds for one year military service. But I would add an exemptions for: two year service for religious service, two year service to the Youthcorps (Bernie Sanders' new CCC), or attending college for four years with realistic class load. This type of strategy would rebuild the country not attended to since the Republican Great Depression of 1929. Many public works projects we rely on today (especially in rural and western USA) were built back in the 1930's. The decline in religious service to the Nation is readily apparent. A 2018 survey showed that although donations to religious organizations was up 50%, the corresponding charitable work by them was down 75%. We were the World's number one leader in education in 1980 and by 2015 we were ranked 45th, thus cutting our competitiveness in world markets. The U.S. Military has resisted a draft stating they can't do anything with a soldier in a year. I suspect that getting the really gung-ho volunteers and the dregs of society as they do now is of a benefit to them as these people as soldiers feel they have nothing to lose going into combat. Other countries use 18 year olds for a year, so why not us? All of these service options would greatly improve the individuals going into them. They would make buddies for life and be exposed to stuff that makes them a more rounded person.

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